Monday, December 29, 2014

Patrick Fleming and the Letters of Columbanus

The First Printed Edition
of Columbanus' works
by Patrick Fleming in 1667
The Irish monastic leader Columbanus wrote several letters during his time in Europe (c. 598-615). These letters are some of the earliest examples of Hiberno-Latin and our only surviving source from the conservative Irish camp on the Easter dating controversy. The letters were written to three popes (Gregory the Great, Sabinian (?), and Boniface III), a synod of Gallic bishops that wanted to censure him, and to his own monks at Luxeuil following his expulsion from Gaul. 

Columbanus was a man who spoke his mind and was proud of that fact (Ep. 5.9). At times he had to excuse his abrasive style on the grounds that he was Irish, and appealed to "the freedom of my country's customs, for among us it is not a man's station but his principles that matter" (Ep. 5.11). This appeal to Irish free speech emboldened him to lambaste the bishop's of Gaul and occasionally a pope or two. 

The fact that we can read the letters of Columbanus today is largely down to the work of a 17th century Irish Franciscan scholar, Patrick Fleming. Fleming was a lecturer in theology at the Irish college at Louvain. His chief theological interest was the work and life of Columbanus, and he set out to collect and transcribe any manuscript material relating to Columbanus that he could find in European libraries. On a trip to Bobbio, Italy, he came across an ancient but badly written copy of Columbanus' letters, which he transcribed. That manuscript has since been lost and Fleming's 17th century transcription formed the basis of the editio princeps that was published in 1677. Had Fleming not made his own copy of the Bobbio manuscript, the letters would have been lost forever.*

Fleming was later appointed director of an Irish college in Prague in 1630, but was murdered in 1631 during the Thirty Years War. His magnum opus on the life and works of Columabanus was finally printed some 36 years later. The modern critical edition of Columbanus' letters is still primarily reliant on Fleming's work.

*note: There was a second 17th century transcription produced by a scholar named Joadoc Metzler, but this is very probably a transcription of Fleming's work and not from the Bobbio manuscript. See Johannes Wilhelmus Smit, Studies on the language and style of Columba the Younger (Columbanus) (Amsterdam, Hakkert, 1971), 33-8.

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